This essay has been adapted from a “Spiel” delivered by Leon Neyfakh on Slate’s daily podcast The Gist. An edited transcript of the audio recording is below, and you can listen to Neyfakh’s Spiel by clicking on the player beneath this paragraph and fast-forwarding to the 14:05 mark.
Over Memorial Day weekend, my wife, Alice, and a bunch of our closest friends rented a house in upstate New York with barely any internet, lots of beautiful meadows and mountains to look at, and a big living room where we could sit around until late at night.
These are not people I have any trouble feeling like myself around. Hanging out with them is always easy and always natural. I don’t ever have to worry that something I’ve said has landed badly, or that they’re not having fun with me even though they say they are, or that they’re thinking secret thoughts about me of any kind. These are people who know and get my natural registers. I am legible to them in my authentic state, and I like to think they’re legible to me in theirs.
It was a great weekend—we played Uno, we watched The Wolf of Wall Street on cable, and we tried to get my dog to swim in the pool. Except there was this one thing. Every once in a while, a chill wind would sweep into the house and briefly ruin everything. Now, I don’t literally mean that sometimes it was windy, which would not be worth mentioning, though it was quite chilly for most of the weekend. Rather, I’m describing a kind of room-transforming social gas that someone would pump into our midst and that infected the air around us. This gas was not emitted by just any someone, but a pretty specific and very famous someone, a guy who has been living in all of our heads for the past year or so, and who now demands our attention every day.
I’m talking, of course, about our president, Donald Trump, who came up frequently during our idyllic weekend even though none of us particularly wanted to talk about him. He was like a genie. As soon as his name came up, it was like Trump was summoned—like he was right there with us.
The president’s arrival had an unmistakable and singular effect: In an instant, he would cause us all to stop speaking like ourselves. It was like talking about Trump made our voices come out of our mouths wrong—as if, in discussing current events, we were turning ourselves into parrots who generically repeated stuff we’d read in the papers, seen on TV, and heard on NPR.
“Oh man,” I said not long after we all woke up on Sunday morning. “Trump’s tweeting again.”
“What’s he saying?” my friend asked.
“He’s saying, ‘The massive TAX CUTS/REFORM that I have submitted is moving along in the process very well, actually ahead of schedule. Big benefits to all!’ ”
“Oh, he just got back from his big foreign trip,” Alice offered.
“He was probably itching to get back to his phone that whole time he was abroad,” I said. “He was conspicuously disciplined about not tweeting provocative stuff while he was over there.”
“Well, sounds like he’s back with a vengeance now,” said someone else. “OK, back to you, Leon, for the weather and traffic report. This has been Friends Talking About Trump, we’ll see you next time!”
OK, so that wasn’t a direct transcript of the conversation. But you see what I’m getting at: Trump changed us all from human beings into news commentators, spouting off warmed-over reactions to the latest awful thing in the news. Without even meaning to, we would find ourselves—and hear each other—using phrases and expressing thoughts we would never otherwise say.
A few weeks earlier, I’d had the following conversation with Alice while we walked our dog.
“I mean, is it time to start thinking about impeachment as a real possibility?” she asked.
“You would think, but then, the Republicans control all of Congress! It’ll never happen,” I replied.
“True, but even they will eventually reach a breaking point.”
“Why though? Trump’s poll numbers are still fine—there is just this one contingent of people who will never leave his side.”
Holy shit, what an awful conversation! Afterward both of us felt stupid and, worse, far apart from each other. We had turned into talking heads.
A few weeks after Trump’s inauguration, Russian writer Masha Gessen spoke to Slate’s Michelle Goldberg about life under autocracy. She spoke from the perspective of someone who had left Putin’s Russia for the U.S. three years earlier and could see more clearly than she used to the toll it had taken on her mind. “In the last three years,” Gessen said, “since I got to this country, I realized what a mental price I had paid for living in a state of siege and a state of battle for a decade and a half.” She called this experience “intellectually deadening. When you are fighting, you stop learning. You stop reading theory. You stop reading about things that aren’t part of the immediate fight.”
Life under autocracy, in other words, forces everyone to think and talk about the autocrat all the time. By virtue of his power, an autocrat imposes himself onto all of our thoughts, forcing us to adopt his vocabulary and inhabit his mind in order to try to understand what he’s doing and why. Ever since his rise to power, Trump has served as a vulgarizing agent. Like a true autocrat, he has situated his stumpy body on all of our shoulders and spends his days burping into our faces while we are forced to connect with the people we love by discussing the tenor and odor of the burps.
I realize this is a lucky way to suffer under Trump—that millions of Americans who are more acutely affected by his malevolent policies are dealing with much worse. Nevertheless, it feels important to recognize the disfiguring effect that Trump has had on our ability to connect with one another. After all, if we can’t talk about Trump six months into his presidency without sounding like dumb pundits, it seems possible that we’ll eventually stop trying—that we’ll become disengaged from and outwardly indifferent to the obscenities taking place around and above us.
There are two reasons I worry that this kind of intellectual and political retreat might be imminent—that before too long, social engagements and conversations with loved ones will turn into sanctuaries from the news where people like me can avoid the subject of Trump and pretend nothing is happening. One of those reasons is that I don’t often have much to say about Trump that qualifies as new or remotely thought-provoking. So much of what the administration does is so obviously corrosive and foolish that it feels pointless to say so. “I disagree with the Muslim ban.” Congratulations, Leon—very interesting point. “Jeff Sessions is dead wrong to try to scale back police reform.” Very true, very true. “Donald Trump is not competent enough to handle the responsibilities of the presidency.” Wow, tell me more about that. I haven’t heard that one before.
The other reason I worry goes back to my experience over Memorial Day: that saying the words I need to say in order to express my boring and predictable opinions about Trump makes me feel like I’m engaged in shoddy, dishonest mimicry.
There’s a Russian word for this, and it’s one I think about a lot: krivlyatsa. It’s a word my parents used with me regularly when I was growing up, always in the context of “do not do this.” Krivlyatsa: It’s a verb that has no direct translation in English, but it means something in the key of “acting cartoonishly, in an ugly and inauthentic way.” It’s often used to describe children who are imitating little phrases and gags they’ve seen on TV. Remember when kids used to screech, “Did I do thaaaaaat?,” copying Urkel from Family Matters? Or when they’d come out of the bathroom and say, “DO NOT GO IN THERE! WOOO!” like Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective? It happens now with the language of memes: Everything is lit af or so extra or bae. While it’s possible to use such language with style and charisma, these are all stock phrases made up by other people, popularized by large crowds, and then adopted by individuals who would, in a better world, be expressing themselves through their own personal language.
To engage in krivlyanya, the noun form of krivlyatsa, means to be artificial—to ventriloquize someone else instead of being yourself. That is roughly how I feel when I talk to my wife and friends about Trump. Even though I’m talking to people who understand me as I am, I inevitably resort to words that aren’t my own, imitating the beats of other people’s observations and arguments that I’ve read online.
I have to disappoint here, because I don’t think there’s any good solution to this problem. What are we supposed to do, just not talk about Trump? Obviously not—like it or not, he is our president, and we are stuck talking about him, even if it’s in a language that is not our own, and which makes us feel alienated from ourselves.
The contrast between that feeling and the feeling of hanging out with my dearest friends this past weekend really sharpened this point for me. And it made me realize that, even in a cabin in the woods, Trump is still going to be there, sitting on our shoulders, and reminding us that life will not be the same until this all somehow ends. Like it or not, we’re going to have to keep talking about this guy for as long as we live. May it never start to come naturally.